Written by Andrea Milam – St. John Tradewinds News

This piece of property in Estate Adrian, which was rezoned in 2004 from R1 to B3 so its owner could construct a convenience store, offices and possibly a restaurant, is now advertised for lease as an “excellent business opportunity.” The practice of rezoning in the Virgin Islands is dangerous, says Senator at Large Craig Barshinger.

It is not uncommon for St. John property owners to petition the Virgin Islands Legislature for the rezoning of their land.

Maybe the property owner wants to construct income-producing apartments to help support his family, or bring a convenience store to an area that is lacking such services.

But while those asking for rezonings may seem to have good intentions, the practice of spot zoning in the Virgin Islands is risky, according to Senator at Large Craig Barshinger.

Once a rezoning is granted, the property owner is under no obligation to follow through with the plan he presented to the Virgin Islands Legislature — which approves all rezonings in the territory — when asking for the zoning change. Additionally, the rezoned property — and all its new uses — could fall into the hands of a new owner if the property is sold, or the property owner dies.

“A rezoning is dangerous, because with each rezoning, there comes between 150 and 250 new uses,” said Barshinger. “You could say you wanted a rezoning to B1 to put in a convenience market, but with that zoning designation, you could also put in a bar.”

“A person who wants to make more money can tell any story they want about what they will do with the land after it’s rezoned, but then they can just sell it and the person who buys the land can make use of any of those hundreds of things made possible by the rezoning,” said the senator at large.

Brian and Betty Smith, whose Estate Adrian property was rezoned in 2005 from R1 to B3 for the purpose of a convenience store, offices and possibly a restaurant, are now advertising their property for long-term lease as an “excellent business opportunity” with signage fronting Centerline Road.

Neighboring property owners expressed concerns at the Smiths’ 2005 hearing before the Department of Planning and Natural Resources that they had not been notified of the couple’s plans for the rezoning.

Brian Smith did not wish to discuss his change of plans since the rezoning with St. John Tradewinds.

Although the Estate Adrian property of Gershwain Sprauve, which was recently rezoned from R2 to R4, showed up on the market just months after his rezoning was approved, Sprauve is adamant that he will retain majority ownership of his property and that the new zoning will not be abused.

Sprauve sought his rezoning to change an existing building on his property from two four-bedroom short-term rental units to four two-bedroom long-term rental apartments, which he has now listed for sale individually as condos.

“Although the zoning I have allows me to expand more, it’s highly unlikely to ever happen,” said Sprauve. “I do plan to retain majority ownership in that property.”

Not all property owners act immediately once their rezoning is approved. Guilderoy Sprauve, whose Estate Adrian property was rezoned in 2004 from R1 to B3 so he could build a shopping center, has yet to follow through with his plans.

The economic downturn and unwillingness of banks to lend money for new construction projects has halted Sprauve’s progress, and in the meantime, he’s considering different alternatives.

“A couple of things are on the table like a gas station project and a commercial building,” said Sprauve. “We’re just watching both projects to see which will be viable for us, and then we’ll make a decision.”

Sprauve is keeping his neighbors apprised of his progress at every step, he continued.

“I’ve always kept the concerns of surrounding property owners in mind,” said Sprauve. “I periodically go to St. John and follow up with them, and we always run by them what we’re planning on doing, especially the property owner directly bordering us. We’re very, very conscious of their thoughts and how they feel, and we try to work around that.”

The consideration of neighboring property owners is one of the biggest reasons that Barshinger dislikes rezonings, he explained.

“Everybody buys their property knowing the zoning of the surrounding neighborhood,” said Barshinger. “The only time I seem to think a rezoning is appropriate is if everybody in the neighborhood decides there should be a new deal, and that means everybody.”

“If people in the neighborhood are fooled by someone who says they are going to put in a convenience store and they put in a bar, then I just have to say to the people that I have warned and warned and warned again, and there comes a point where I have to say, ‘caveat emptor: let the neighbors beware,’” Barshinger said.

The power of a zoning change was realized by developers of the luxury condominium development Sirenusa, who were allegedly willing to pay for their new zoning designation, according to Barshinger.

“Sirenusa was the poster child for bad rezoning,” said the senator at large. “They came to me and said, ‘we know you’re leaving office and it’s going to be a financial hardship.’ Everybody understands this is probably happening if they have any kind of worldly knowledge.”

Barshinger is a proponent of zoning variances, which allow a property owner to use their property in a way that is not outlined in that property’s zoning, without changing the zoning entirely and opening the possibility for hundreds of new uses.

A use variance, however, is not always appropriate, according to the DPNR’s Director of Comprehensive and Coastal Zone Planning, Marjorie Emanuel.

“A Legislative use variance would not address dimensional issues, such as the exceptional narrowness, shallowness, topographic conditions, shape or substandard size of property, or other extraordinary situations or conditions,” said Emanuel.

Essentially, while a variance would allow one to construct a four-unit apartment building on an R1-zoned property, the building would still be required to meet all other restrictions set forth in the R1 zoning designation.

Gershwain Sprauve, whose four two-bedroom units are now for sale, was unhappy with the rezoning process, but felt he had no other option, he explained.

“There is really no sort of recourse for landowners to come up with something that makes sense in terms of zoning,” said Sprauve. “I had no choice but to seek the change, although it is not necessarily what I wanted. We really need to examine the laws on the books.”

Barshinger agrees that a different approach needs to be taken, and hopes a move toward more localized government is the answer.

“I think spot zoning on part of the Senate is a responsibility we should not have,” he said. “It should be done locally, and as we move toward more local government, it will be a natural evolution. There is no right — zero — to a rezoning.”